Protein and Gold: Gore's Generation of Environmentalists Circuitous Path

"I believe in global warming"

"I don't believe in global warming"

These two statements seemed to starkly define a generation.  They become emblems of environmentalism, or environmental skepticism.   Many use one of these statements to define who they are.   The first is more popular, perhaps, because it's emblematic of compassion, and people dig compassion.

I believe extinction, the consumption of diverse species, is the simplest measure of our society's place in history of the planet.  Any other measure - carbon, or prayers, temperature, or wealth - is a distraction from what future people will care about that we did today.  What drives our impacts today?   Protein and Gold.

I dig baby elephants.  And I want baby elephants to have papas and mommies.  It's a simple faith in nurture, and it doesn't make me an environmental scientist.  But because I don't want elephants, or frogs, or tigers, walruses, or seals to be extinct, I work in recycling.  And it has nothing at all to do with landfills, or with carbon.   To save these species, we must alter our love of metals, especially expensive metals like gold.   And if you think teaching humans to consume less energy is challenging, try teaching people to let go of gold.

This is not a statement about the science of global warming.  It's a statement about human psychology, and the way media tries to educate society about need for change.  When we need society's consumption to change - and I'm convinced more than ever that we do - we need to understand our own psychology, our own cognitive dissonance, our own appetite for opinion change, and to invest in messages which opinion research indicates will make a darn difference one hundred to one thousand years from now.

For now, the loudest discussions, if not debate, are over global warming and climate change (thanks Mr. Gore).   There is no denying that there are many, many sophisticated arguments humans engage in to support either position at the top on belief in global warming.   There is also no denying that public discussion of the issue focuses primarily on the psychology and assessment of the opponent.

Merely referencing dry scholarly work on the shrinking (or not) of Mars poles, as an indicator of the average temperature on Mars, demands an apology.  From Yahoo answers discussion, links to these two papers are presented with a disclaimer... "I'm not a denier but evidence shows that they (Mars plar caps) are melting." 
The discussion of global warming here on earth is usually hedged today with similar qualifiers.   "It's undeniable that even if the Earth is warming for other reasons (solar or celestial energy), that humans are producing more carbon, and carbon will exacerbate the rate of global warming."

Well, I'm capable of reading science, but as an environmental professional with payroll and investments to cover, the number one lesson is not to express the wrong opinion about climate change to the wrong person.  It's not the science.  None of us is going to change the rate of warming or cooling or carbon with our opinion on the subject, expressed over lunch or at a dinner party.    But we are definitely likely to affect people's opinions of us, through their opinion of our own opinion.

The safest thing, if you run an environmental company in Vermont, is not to appear to criticize Al Gore.   The safest thing is to express a belief in God, in some form, even if unknowable or spiritual, if one is in a group of Christians or Muslims.   Safest thing is not to go into particulars.   None of us, in expressing our opinion of God or Global Warming, will have much effect on Either's existence.  But we will certainly be labelling ourselves in a society which is collectively accounting for our Faith in either subject.

That's not true of a core group of hard scientists, and that is where the facts of the discussion and policy belong.  But as the husband of an academic, I can say it's also a mistake to think professors and scientists and researchers are not also socially cognizant of the way the expression of their "gathered opinions" are perceived by their peers.   It's rare that any person-to-person discussion resembles a computer-to-computer discussion.

My opinion on global warming is generally based on Socratic method, or Einstein thought experiments.  Take two possibilities - that the Earth, through human activity, will:

A) Warm the Earth by one degree over 300 years
B) Warm the Earth by three degrees over 100 years

Here, you can eliminate the "denier" labelling system, which bends cognitive dissonance and poisons the well in many a social interchange.  Both hypotheses accept climate change, or global warming.  But the relative difference between the two opinions leads to drastically different political and budgetary decisions.

Why?  Because politically, society doesn't seem to care about the world 900 years from now.

After all 900 years is the common point.   Opinion B in 900 years results in the same climate change as Opinion A in 100 years.   And the difference between the two - 800 years - is completely and utterly insignificant on the scale of the earth's species extinction points.

Extinction intensity.svg

Wikipedia 2013.11.16   The blue graph shows the apparent percentage (not the absolute number) of marine animal genera becoming extinct during any given time interval. It does not represent all marine species, just those that are readily fossilized. The labels of the "Big Five" extinction events are clickable hyperlinks; see Extinction event for more details. (source and image info)

The graph of Cambrian, pre-Cambrian, Jurassic, Permian, Cretaceous mass extinctions cannot be easily measured in any mere period of hundreds of years.   A 3 degree warming of the earth's temperature will have the "tipping point" effects (ice ceases to be reflective, and the earth absorbs more solar energy, creating more warming).  How that tipping point is going to happen is not in question, and when it's going to happen matters subjectively on a scale of human lifetimes - a completely subjective measure - rather than on an Earth History scale.

If, however, the tipping point is going to occur 900 years from now, rather than 100 years from now, Global Warming and Climate Change have a massively different social relevance on our current tax and investment policy.  Now one makes a financial investment with a 900 year payoff.   We are not likely to change our consumption patterns based on that horizon, either.   Humans are not going to use an opinion on an occurrence 900 years from now as a litmus test for "huge outliers" within the set of opinions in our social circle.

"I'm a 100 year three degree warmer."
"I'm a 900 year three degree warmer."

Neither of these constitutes the label "denier", but the decisions each would make on social and political spending today might take a massively different direction...  especially if it affected their accumulation or consumption of gold and protein.  How much we spend on development of solar, nuclear, or fracking technology development tends to be paced on differences we can see, as a result of our spending, in our own lifetimes or those of our children and grandchildren.

And this is in the end why I dislike the Climate debate.   Because extinction is going to happen on a massive scale whether its caused by global warming, or by poaching, or encroachment by humans in to ecological habitats and niches, like rain forests.

The sad look on the face of a polar bear whose ice has melted is a leveraging point for empathy and call to action, not that different from a white baby seal being clubbed to death for its fur pelt.  And when I see polar bear empathy used to leverage social opinion, I really get concerned about Elephants and Whales.  Because the remedy for the polar bear is to go buy hybrid cars... to consume more metals.

My generation of environmentalists, the second generation from Silent Spring, The Waste Makers, and To Kill a Mockingbird, was focused on mankind's consumption of all kinds of resources.  I'm not sure that, by focusing on carbon like a laser beam, we have improved the dialog.

The rate of consumption of rain forests, whether from burning for grazing land (for protein), or deep incisions cut into the habitats by logging trails and metal mining trails (which expose species to poachers, hunters, and Chinese medicine cooks), is happening at a rate far faster than the global warming tipping points.   And whether you care about reuse and recycling because it reduces carbon, or you care about recycling because the copper, tantalum, and tin mining occurs in Borneo, Congo River basin, and Indonesian coral islands, you can support reuse and recycling either way.

Whether it's 100 years or 900 years, elephants, gorillas, sharks and tigers will be gone by then.  They are threatened by mining trails and wealth which increases consumption of metals and protein.

Bill McKibben, in my humble opinion, has definitely made scientific contributions to environmentalism.   And I don't know enough about his classes or lectures to know whether has done significant good to the protection of endangered species.

My concern about global warming is that it's a dry math problem.   It's going to happen in 100 years or in 900 years, within a statistical probability of X.   The social and government spending which is called for based on that 800 year spread is of huge importance to selfish people who buy gold.

Gold is one of the most universal purchases mankind makes, and gold comes at gigantic environmental expense.  Gold Rush miners in the Amazon and Congo River basin purchase massive quantities of mercury from retorted e-waste and lamp processors, and dig roads into remote jungles, exposing tigers and alligator gars and hippos to bushmeat hunters.

Gold extraction can increase in either of two ways.  The 7 billion people can get richer, or 14 billion people can remain poor.  The same impact on rain forests will occur whether 7 people buy 100 grams of gold, or 14 billion people consume 50 grams of gold apiece.

Changing peoples attitude about CONSUMPTION is the lesson which Sustainability Advocates need to teach.  And that lesson has dramatically different impacts on the development of Toyota Prius hybrid batteries.

A very good friend of mine, in New Orleans on Tuesday, told me the story of her Toyota Prius at lunch.  She had purchased, used, one of the first generation Priuses, from a friend or family member.   The hybrid battery, made of rare-earth metals, had gone bad during the warranty period, and Toyota had replaced it free of charge.   She smiled, saying she had a brand new Prius (new battery, older body).

The climate debate makes us think that's a victory, when it's a devastating failure.

It's too hard to teach people about the hard rock mining and rare earth costs of the metals in the Prius battery, and I cannot even claim to have done a calculation of whether a Prius battery has to last 9 years or 12 years, or what the environmental cost of a 3 years accidental failure rate equates to.

What seems more realistic is to teach people not to buy gold, and to eat sustainable protein.

Renunciation of greed, abandonment of gold, that was Jesus's lesson, that was Muhammad's lesson, that was Lao Tsu's lesson, Buddha's, and Confucious's, Moses's lesson.   And religions all have rules about meat which reflect centuries of species policy.   And it should be the lesson of Jacques Cousteau, and Jane Goodall, and Rachael Carlson, and Vance Packard.

Gold demand would be my first choice for change.  The chase for the shiny metal costs oceans, rivers, forests, species unfathomable rates of harm and extinction and deforestation, it creates massive toxic pollution, and socially, it robs the poorest people in the world of their living standard.  The desire of the poor for protein is more complex, but if protein can be delivered more sustainably, it's more important than the gas mileage on my car.

Most gold is purchased in poor countries, like India, where if you love your daughter, but she cannot inherit land, you give her gold.   Gold from aqua regia extraction of e-waste, or gold from Jungle Gold.  And if we can halt gold purchases, and beef purchases, we will have more of an impact on carbon as well.   The cost of a metal is driven by the cost of energy, and the amount of carbon it takes to produce a ton of it.

The growth of the economy is going to make the difference between 2-3 degrees of warming over a few centuries.   When the economic growth is channeled into burgers and gold (and ivory and rhino horns and tiger penises), it's the form of savings that humanity invests in that will be measured by the next generations of environmental stewards.

This is why I'm frustrated with Al Gore.

He wants to make fossil fuels the measure of species extinction, rather than beef from burned rain forests turned to pasture, over-harvesting of oceans for shark fins and protein, and a delirious appetite for gold and ivory.   He has taken a very simple concern over mankind's impact on the planet, and used it to direct well-meaning students in to fossil fuel policy research.
“There may be less birds for birders to see in the world as the planet warms. Climate change, in combination with deforestation, could send between 100 and 2,500 tropical birds to extinction before the end of century, according to new research published in Biological Conservation. The wide range depends on the extent of climate and how much habitat is lost, but researchers say the most likely range of extinctions is between 600 and 900 species, meaning about 10-14 percent of tropical birds, excluding migratory species.”
Occam's Razor says that if you want to save birds, you don't build roads into forests to mine rare metals for Prius batteries.   I could be wrong on the math, it might be that the hybrid battery is very important to species extinction.  But it appears to me a way we can advocate spending more to consume a different resource (hard rock mining) than the petroleum resource.   And environmentalists make a grave mistake if they label me an Al Gore denier because I question his circuitous path to sustainable planets.

Protein and Gold.

Protein, the harvesting of forests and oceans for hamburgers and shark soup, is a matter of advertising bad taste.   Coveting meat on the plate, and coveting gold, are psychological sources of demand.  Measuring the thermometers is a distraction.   I'm not going to arrive in a leadership position among liberals if I appear to make Al Gore a target, and the "fast friends" and applause I'd get from conservatives for critiquing Al Gore isn't going to affect their consumption of beef or purchase of gold.

All I'm saying is that 100 years from now, people will be studying environmentalism the same way we study it now - what do we need to change, and how quickly do we need to change it?   The debate will hopefully be more scientific.  But the state of the oceans, the rain forests, and species diversity then is being dictated by what we do now.   I'm just not sure the thermometer is the most important divining rod for a better future state.  I may be wrong about that, but that's the debate we should be having about the earth.  And it may just be that if we change opinions about protein and gold, reduced carbon will be a benefit that comes along for the ride.

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